Rediscovering the New Frontier: A Tribute to Gene Wolfe

by Meghan Owen

“The point is Gene Wolfe writes Gene Wolfe but he also writes science fiction. There’s never a word out of place and it’s one beautiful sentence after another.” ~Gary K. Wolfe, science fiction editor, critic and biographer.

As illustrated by the quote above, it’s hard to get a bad review of the symphonic and meticulous works of science fiction/science fantasy author, Gene Wolfe.  A man of many novels, Gene Wolfe is most acclaimed for his series, The Book of the New Sun, a four-book succession revolving around the actions of the scorned and striving-torturer, Severian, who must travel the darkening surface of Urth.  In the New Sun tetralogy, Wolfe displays ingenuity with language and ground-breaking approach to first-person narrative. Gene Wolfe has masterful storytelling present in all of his literature and it is this expansive talent for which the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is honoring him with the first Henry Blake Fuller Award.

One of the most alluring and perplexing aspects of Wolfe’s work are the narrators of his stories. “The most realistic aspects are his characters because they are conflicted and have a reason not to confront themselves,” said Marc Aramini, an English professor at Mohave Community College in Arizona and fan of Wolfe’s work.

“You have to pay attention to everything,” Gary K. Wolfe said. “Once you start questioning the narrator, the story opens up like a flower.”

Wolfe has an ingenious adherence to human qualities within his characters. In some of his novels his narrators are unreliable because they are clearly shaping their own truth in order to better grapple with the reality they lead.  Aramini points out that once both the narrators in Peace and Silk begin to reveal a tragic experience they recede back into their prior narrative in order to keep their sanity.  Though this method of storytelling may be labor-intensive for some readers, those who are invested discover the beautiful, multi-leveled wizardry imbued in Wolfe’s work.

Language itself is eloquently reinvented in Wolfe’s literary worlds.  “It’s sublime,” said Aramini. “It may be troublesome for the reader at first, but if you look up his words they work perfectly.”

Wolfe’s use of syntax is highly elevated, yet not necessarily clinical with SAT vocabulary. It is rich with prose-like description and multi-layered subtext.  In many instances, the flourishing but innocent-at-first-glance imagery may be the key to the entire plot. “Once I was on a panel with (Neil) Gaiman in Montreal where we could talk about whatever we wanted. Afterwards someone walked up and informed me that we managed to talk about only a couple of pages of Wolfe’s work for over ten minutes,” recalled Gary K. Wolfe.

Truly, Wolfe’s writing is layered with symbolism and great intention; however, where some works of fiction get bogged down with this kind of heavy detail, Wolfe’s work thrives.

“What Wolfe leaves out of his work is just as important as what he puts in, which makes him a truly spiritual author,” Aramini said.

Because of Wolfe’s intentional stacking of symbolism, his work takes on a strong, mystical air. In Aramini’s view, Wolfe is an author of science fantasy rather than science fiction.  An important distinction, Aramini said, because many science fiction novels revolve around the strict notions of physics in order to make a fictional reality concrete.

“There is some kind of alien quality about the Book of The New Sun protagonist,” Aramini explained. “Those powers are not fully understandable. I think Gene writes science fantasy because so many things are possible due to the fact that he is not bound by the rules of science and thus he can make a deeper point about identity.”

One of the most wonderful aspects of Gene Wolfe is who he is away from the page. “The first time I met him we were all expecting a very enigmatic figure,” Gary K. Wolfe remembered. “But, there he was, very funny and witty and nothing pretentious about him at all.”

It is both Gene Wolfe’s talent as a science fantasy/fiction writer and his geniality as a person that have led many of his fans and peers to claim that he hasn’t received the recognition he warrants.

“One of the things that has kept Gene from getting the credit he deserves is the protocol to reading science fiction that can both help and hinder,” contended Gary K. Wolfe.  “Pay attention.  Don’t skip through it because you think you get everything, because you probably don’t. You can skim through Wheel of Time, it’s like Skyrim. You can’t do that with Gene.”

Delving completely into Wolfian landscapes can be an endeavor that requires effort, but the payoff is worth it. Literature should be rich enough to merit re-reading. “He deserves greater popularity,” argued Aramini. “I’m glad he has some recognition while he is still alive.”

Gary K. Wolfe, who is serving as master of ceremonies for the awards, agreed.  “I’m very excited about a Night to Honor Gene Wolfe,” said Gary K. Wolfe. “There’s more than just Gene, it’s everyone. All of the people coming are genuine writers celebrating. Gene has been here for thirty to forty years and the literary community is finally here to recognize him. He is very moved by that recognition.”